Big Jack: The England legend who became an Irish icon

23 Nov 2020
  • Jack Charlton passed away in July of this year

  • New documentary reflects on his achievements and struggles with dementia

  • Andy Townsend, Packie Bonner and Gabriel Clarke tell FIFA.com about this legendary figure

Jack Charlton was a linchpin in Leeds United’s greatest team and the only England side ever to win the FIFA World Cup™. But it says everything about his impact on Republic of Ireland – as a team and as a nation – that these on-field achievements are relegated to mere footnotes in a new documentary.

‘Finding Jack Charlton’, which is released on digital download and DVD today, offers a poignant account of its subject’s final years living with dementia, as well as insight into his complicated relationship with brother Bobby. Yet it is Big Jack’s Irish adventures that provide the focal point. The likes of U2 drummer Larry Mullen and author Roddy Doyle speak about the societal impact, in an era of economic stagnation and paramilitary violence, of Charlton’s team reaching – then thriving – at three successive major tournaments.

Former players also share memories of the unique management style that propelled a group of erstwhile underachievers to the World Cup knockout stage at Italy 1990 and USA 1994. Two stalwarts of that team – midfielder Andy Townsend and goalkeeper Packie Bonner – also joined director Gabriel Clarke to tell FIFA.com about Charlton and the elements that made him such a beloved and influential figure.

Jack the team-builder

Though he could be uncompromising, Charlton skilfully and deliberately created an unbreakable team spirit, making enjoyment a key element of squad gatherings

Andy Townsend: “Jack could connect very quickly and very comfortably in any environment. He was an outstanding communicator. He was also very aware that he had a strong pool of players, but a relatively small one; there weren’t 40 or 50 top Irish players to pick from. Because of that, he was very aware of making sure that players really wanted to come away with the squad.

"I remember hearing about England at the 2010 World Cup and how bored they all were. That was never an issue for us. We loved each other’s company, and everyone in that squad was desperate to meet up every time we got the call. A lot of that was due to the spirit that Jack fostered and the freedom he allowed us. It was just great fun. And while there were lots of reasons for that, the biggest one was the man in charge and the environment he created.”

Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton speaks to his players.

Packie Bonner: “Being able to create the right environment for your players is such an important skill for any manager to have, and Jack was brilliant at it. You could listen to him talk all day for a start – he was a great storyteller – and he surrounded himself with good staff. When I think back now, it was just a lot of fun. We’d have games nights, and Jack would be in the middle of it all, with everyone roaring laughing.

"As players, he gave us plenty of leeway too. I think it would be difficult now, with social media and all the camera phones out there, to do that with a team these days. But we’d have days out at the races together, go out into town as a group, and Jack very much enabled and encouraged that. There was a very relaxed, feelgood atmosphere, and it created a spirit that was very important to the way we played and what we went on to achieve.”

Gabriel Clarke: “That side to Jack was something I wasn’t expecting as much. I knew a bit more about the tactical side of things. But when you hear the likes of [kit man] Charlie O’Leary speaking about how Jack wanted to involve everyone – not just the players – it’s so clear how important creating that group spirit was to him. You see it in the [documentary] footage; in great scenes we have of a singalong the squad and staff had after being knocked out by Italy [at the 1990 World Cup], with Jack leading the singing.

"That kind of thing wasn’t just off the cuff. You see it in the notes he kept about the basic elements of man-management. The best one of all for me is the note that reads, ‘Be a dictator, but be a nice one’. That completely sums up what Jack Charlton was all about. He expected players to do it his way. But if they did it his way, they’d have a bloody good time.”

Jack the tactician

Charlton’s direct and combative style of play, while often derided as old-fashioned, had at its heart a high-energy press that is now de rigueur

Townsend: “There were few teams back then who pressed with the intensity that we did. Jack was definitely ahead of his time in that respect, and he was absolutely adamant about taking that approach. It was never up for discussion. That was really the dominant characteristic of Jack’s Irish teams: we were expected to impose ourselves on the opposition. Jack would say, ‘Other teams might have better technical players than you lot, but what there won’t be anywhere in the world is a team that’s as committed and focused on going after the opposition.’

"He also knew that, when we got the ball, we had players who could hurt even the best teams. And in the top third of the field, we had license to do what we wanted – there was a lot of freedom. That definitely wasn’t the case at the back though. When I see goalkeepers passing the ball out to centre-halves these days, knocking it around their 18-yard box, I can imagine Jack’s reaction to that. He would have gone crazy!” (laughs)

Bonner: “One thing I know for sure: teams hated playing against us. When you look back, we played against some great sides in those days – the likes of the Dutch, England, Spain and a really strong USSR side – and all of them found us horrible to play against. The pressing was non-stop.

"Jack wanted an all-action style and I think that helped endear him to the Irish people because, if you look at other traditional Irish sports – the likes of Gaelic football and rugby – it’s all high energy, loads of commitment. I definitely feel that Jack’s style of play helped bring the whole country – even people who’d traditionally followed those other sports – along with him, and with us as a team. It played into our national characteristics, and it was a team everyone could be proud of.”

1990 World Cup Quarter Final. Rome, Italy. 30th June, 1990. Italy 1 v Republic Of Ireland 0. Republic Of Ireland manager Jack Charlton and Assistant Maurice Setter hold aloft the Irish flag as they wave farewell to the crowd after the match.

Jack the honorary Irishman

While some players, and a large section of fans, were initially resistant to an Englishman taking charge, Charlton’s personal attributes sparked an enduring love affair with the Irish people

Clarke: “The idea of an Englishman going to Ireland at that time [amid the Troubles in Northern Ireland and widespread anti-British feeling], and ten years later being given the citizenship of the country, was just unthinkable. It’s incredible what he achieved in that respect.”

Bonner: “Jack really did love the Irish. That was very genuine – and the feeling was definitely mutual. There was a bit of focus on the fact he was an Englishman when he first came in but Jack was from the north of England, and the way he spoke – that straightforward, down-to-earth attitude, with a bit of humour too – really struck a chord in Ireland. He was someone the Irish people felt they could relate to.

"Results help too of course! If you’re winning matches and doing a good job for the country, people are always ready to come up and shake your hand and tell you how wonderful you are. But with Jack it went beyond that.”

Townsend: “He loved that bond he had with the Irish. He used to walk out during the warm-up sometimes and, as he’d come out, the crowd would go ballistic, cheering and clapping. And he’d come over and say to me, ‘Andy, don’t you mess this up. Listen to that – they love me!’ It was all done in an affectionate way, and he’d give the fans a wink and a wave. That mixture of good humour and warmth was a big reason why the Irish people loved him. There was a real warmth and humility about him.”

English former footballer and manager of the Republic of Ireland national team, Jack Charlton celebrates after the Republic of Ireland drew 0-0 with Norway in their final 1994 FIFA World Cup Group E match to qualify for the Round of 16 knockout stage of the tournament, at the Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, United States on 28th June 1994.

Bonner: “It was an important time for Ireland, and that team played its part in giving the country a bit of a lift. People went into work with a spring in their step and had a bit of pride in their country.

"Then once we started qualifying for tournaments and the fans followed us abroad, and behaved themselves brilliantly, it projected a really positive image of Ireland around the world. People saw the fun and the happiness in Irish people and that helped attract people into the country – tourists, but also businesses too. There were lots of elements at play of course but it’s nice to think that Jack and that team played a bit of a part in putting the country on an upwards trajectory again.”

Townsend: “I feel very proud, and very fortunate, to have been part of the Irish team at the time Jack was around. Someone asked me, ‘If you could go back and do it again or do it differently, would you?’ And no, I absolutely wouldn’t because you couldn’t beat what we had. It couldn’t have been any better. And we all have Jack to thank for that.”

Jack Charlton acknowledges the Republic of Ireland fans.